To many people, boxing seems to be a dangerous sport between two savage men hell bent on beating the life out of each other. While it’s true that some boxing matches can be incredibly brutal and vicious, these dismissive opinions don’t take into account the skill and strategy within the sport. A boxing match is like a chess game, with fighters trying to outwit and outmaneuver their opponent to deliver the knockout blow. Yet while previous boxing titles have delivered a level of tactical accuracy, the realism has been significantly missing. Well, EA’s Fight Night 2004 provides the most realistic boxing game to date, establishing the standard by which future boxing games will be judged.
Up till now, most boxing titles have simply been exercises in button mashing: You face your opponent, smack the jab, hook or uppercut button as quickly as possible and attempt to knock the other boxer down as quickly as possible. In this sense, strategy was basically limited to the fastest fingers on the keypad. Fight Night 2004 redefines this flaw of boxing games with the new Total Punch Control. This interface, tied to the right analog stick, lets players decide which punches they want to throw by moving the stick in its naturally corresponding direction. In that sense, jabs occur by moving the stick up and to the right or left. Hooks require the stick to move out to one side before moving up to the opponent’s head, just as uppercuts require you to dip the stick (or your “hand”) before connecting with your punch. In this way, players have to be much more deliberate about the punch that’s thrown, because trying to turn the match into a slugfest will only tire your boxer out and make him susceptible to a quick knockout from your rival.
Fight Night also gives players body blows to punish your opponent’s midsection and signature punches, which can be used to provide a certain amount of flair to a swung fist. You’re not restricted to clean punches either. Headbutts and below the belt shots are also included for dirty boxers who don’t care to follow the rules. Of course, while a solid offense is good for a fighter, a stable defense is just as important. Fighters can block punches by holding the R1 button and using the right analog stick to actually intercept blows. Effective anticipation of incoming punches actually sets fighters up for effective counter strikes or combinations that can quickly wear down a boxer’s strength. Players can also bob and weave 360 degrees to avoid blows with the L1 button and the left analog stick, dodging a punch and attacking with one of their own. Not only does this combined control scheme feel much more lifelike during gameplay, but it helps provide the strategy that’s been severely missing from most boxing titles.
Fight Night 2004 provides a wide spectrum of fighters to take to the ring for any gamer in their exhibition mode. Stretched across six weight classes, from the featherweight and welterweight to the light heavy and heavyweight fighters, Fight Night presents 32 famous and legendary boxers for players who want to spar with friends or the computer. We’re talking household name fighters like Jake LaMotta, Roy Jones Jr., Evander Holyfield and of course, the great one Muhammad Ali. The interesting thing about this feature is that you really get a sense of the differences between the weight classes. For instance, the lumbering yet powerful gait of the heavyweights is starkly contrasted with the light, hummingbird quick moves of the featherweights.
The other mode found within the game is that of the career mode, where you take a fighter you create and attempt to put him up against the best boxers in his class. Players receive a pool of points to allocate amongst 8 categories, including Power, Stamina and Body strength. From there, they design every aspect of their character, from their trunks down to the entrance music they strut down the aisle towards the ring with. The true test, however, doesn’t come in designing the outfits as much as knocking someone out. Fight Night places fifty boxers in your way, giving you twenty years to pummel your way to the top. Obviously, you have to eliminate or leapfrog over everyone in the way of your goal. Fight Night will offer two or more pugilists to choose from, and you can check out their stats to see how you measure up before stepping into the ring. If you’re wildly outmatched, you can enter training camp and boost your skills in one of 4 mini-games that actually have an impact on character development. Sparring, Heavy Bag Combo work, the Combo Doll and Hand Pads can all provide up to 15 points for each player’s stats.
Does this seem lacking in gameplay? Well, there’s actually another mode, but it only exists for PlayStation owners – that of online play. Here, you can challenge other boxers around the world to fights and bragging rights. Not a silent experience, Fight Night lets you talk smack to other players as you smack them around via USB headsets. This online play is key to extending the replayability of the game, because Fight Night can be somewhat limited in holding your attention. In particular, most of the no name fighters exhibit either an extremely aggressive attack style or a run and hide defensive posture. While the specific licensed boxers have much more of a personality, and actually taunt and box like their real life counterparts, it’s easy to quickly decipher and defeat these opponents when you figure out how they’ll approach you. At least the online play provides a level of unpredictability in the human element, but Xbox owners are just out of luck this year. It’s also limited in replayability because every unlocked item you buy within the fight store is restricted to use for that boxer only, which won’t motivate you to necessarily unlock them again unless you really liked them the first time.
Aside from the lack of additional modes or replayability, one of the largest problems with Fight night is its lack of certain facets of the sweet science itself. For instance, while you can check an opponent’s stats to see whether or not you’ll suffer a beatdown at their gloves, Fight Night doesn’t list or take into account the differences in fighter’s arm reaches. In most boxing matches, this can often be the difference between a win by decision and an early round KO because someone’s arms are longer than their opponent. Considering this fact, you’d expect that there’d be the option to clinch up your rival to get closer and launch a few body blows, but alas, that’s not to be found here. Another thing that seems a wee bit off is the lack of injuries affecting a boxer’s stats. If a pugilist suffers a particularly harsh beating, they won’t have a chance to fight for quite a while as they try to recover. What’s more, some boxers, especially as time goes on, find their skills or perceptions degrading as they stay in the boxing game. However, Fight Night disregards any of these facets in favor of quickly launching you into the next bout.
Similar to that, Fight Night doesn’t take the potential psychology of getting knocked down or losing to a specific fighter a number of times into account. There are plenty of fighters in the boxing world who seem to have mental blocks or even vendettas against fighters they’ve fought numerous times, especially if they lost a title to them. However, that’s not exploited anywhere in the game. Finally, while career mode allows you the option to “manage” your boxer with some material items, more of the “important” facets, such as trainers, cut men or even motivators aren’t included. Players should have the option to get better trainers as they progress, have the option to move up in weight classes, or other typical boxing staples. Unfortunately, they’re not included, and even the entourage is somewhat limited. Seriously, every boxer rolls up to a ring with more than just a cut man, a trainer and a dancing woman, no matter how large the pyrotechnics or loud the intro music.
It’s hard to not be impressed by the graphical quality that Fight Night 2004 brings to the ring. While not as powerful as its EA sibling in Tiger Woods, the Create-A-Player feature in Fight Night will let you create a number of unique boxers. It’s even possible, if you spend enough time and energy, to include those fighters that haven’t been included in this year’s version. What’s more impressive is the sheer amount of attention paid to in-game facial deformation based on the amount of damage you inflict or receive. Cuts, bruises, black eyes and other “badges of honor” realistically and painfully appear on fighters after hard hits. Even cooler, Fight Night has included rag doll physics, so each knockdown will look completely new and fresh as boxers legs buckle and their muscles go limp. Enterprising fighters can even get in extra punches that add to the damage and lifelessness found within the animation, which is a sweet touch. What’s more, having to line up the ref in your fighter’s field of vision to actually get back on your feet is a great touch to the realism of getting your clock cleaned. The two largest problems that I found within the graphics are the lack of facial or character definition with some of the more licensed characters, which is a little distracting, and the stiffness exhibited when fighters get knocked down face first. Otherwise, Fight Night is a great looking game on both platforms.
Sound is pretty solid as well, with EA Trax once again providing a solid, pumping soundtrack of rap, led by P. Diddy and Biggie Smalls. However, this really comes secondary to the sound effects in the game. From the fireworks that explode to the back and forth roar of the crowd as they follow the fight to the slap of leather against someone’s skull, the sound effects are top notch and sell the game completely. If there was a weak point within the game, it would have to be the inclusion of Big Tigger for the commentary. While he comes up with a number of interesting comments, after a while he quickly gets repetitive, and turns into one of the more annoying elements of the game. Perhaps the inclusion of other boxing announcers and ring announce teams from Showtime or HBO would prevent this.
Overall, Fight Night 2004 is easily the evolution of the sweet science on any console, and boxing or fighting fans of any kind should add this game to their collection. While there are still some facets of the sport that haven’t been included within this game, and Xbox owners will potentially get bored with the game faster than PS2 owners thanks to the lack of online play, the Total Punch Control system is the most intuitive and natural boxing scheme ever invented, and will be the standard that other boxing (perhaps even other fighting) games will be judged by.